“I began my teaching career at a Bible college, where I inherited the “next generation” of Christian young people—an age group that is now the adult leadership in their churches. Since these students had chosen to go to Bible college, I presumed they were the most likely to be interested in the material. I quickly discovered that wasn’t the case. These students had grown up in church. They’d heard sermons, attended Sunday school classes, and listened to countless messages at youth group and camps. In their minds, they’d heard it all. And in one sense, they had. They’d heard all of the items covered in Christianity 101—hundreds of times. I distinctly remember looking out on a room full of faces that telegraphed one thought: I dare you not to bore me with the Bible.” ~ Michael S. Heiser
Our church has small groups each Wednesday night. We do these differently than some other churches, though. We gather into different groups inside the church itself depending on life stage, electives ranging on different topics of study, etc. The other night, we began a study on what it means to be a man of God.
One of the obvious questions we explored dealt with challenges in becoming a man who is regularly in touch with God’s Word. Reading God’s word on a regular basis—let’s face it—can be a bit of a chore, for a number of reasons. Not the least of which that came up was, as you might of guessed, the Bible can be kind of boring sometimes.
I could relate to my friend across the room who raised the “boring Bible” problem. I have been a Christian for a long time and only relatively recently have I begun taking the Bible seriously. I’m ashamed to admit that; at the same time, it helps me identify with so many of you. I know you face these difficulties. I did too, and I came out the other side. This tells me you can too.
In fact, let me take a few moments to tell you about my own rediscovery of the Bible. A few years ago I did begin to question everything I thought was true. It was around that time I discovered apologetics, and so much of the rest of the story is history. That really did reawaken my passion for Christianity—but, believe it or not, it did not necessarily reawaken my passion for the Bible.
That did not come until just a couple of years ago now. Readers know I am a fan of Dr. Michael Heiser. While I simply do not agree with everything Dr. Heiser teaches (as is true of most Bible teachers I follow), the core thesis of Dr. Heiser’s approach to the Bible is one I have become convinced of. It is sometimes called the Divine Council Worldview or the Deuteronomy 32 Worldview. A fuller discussion of these is simply too far left field for our time here.1However, here’s the basic rundown:
The biblical authors have a spiritual worldview that goes beyond what most Westernized Christians see in the Bible. There is an entire supernatural narrative that, once you see in the Bible, it is quite difficult (if not impossible) to ignore or unsee. This “Unseen Realm” as Heiser calls it is very alive, very active, and is a major concern for biblical writers. However, time and translation make it very difficult to catch these themes if you are not looking for them.
Ok, I have to tell you something kind of uncomfortable; you’re not likely to hear it in church for reasons we will not go into here, but it’s extremely important you understand this. Ready?
Many Christians make the assumption that, if they’ve grown up in church, they already know everything there is to know about the Bible. Further, that all other Christians believe pretty much the same thing as them. And, perhaps even that people who believe other things about the Bible are so wrong as to be living in sin against God. Hear me well: This is downright false, and it’s just bad thinking to boot.
The reality is that many start down the path of Bible study, and stop the moment they find something uncomfortable or unfamiliar. You will never fall in love with the Bible as long as you are afraid of the notion that it’s possible to learn something new about it.
But it gets a little worse before it gets better. You see, many Christians also approach Bible study with the notion that—since it’s God’s perfectly inspired Word—we know all there is to know about it. But this is also not true. Just because the canon of Scripture has been completed for a couple thousand years now does not mean we have everything figured out. If we can agree that God gave us tools such as archeology, linguistics, etc., then we must agree that things will be unearthed over time that expand our knowledge of the ancient world—that includes the world in which the biblical writers lived.
And this ties our excursus nicely back to the point I was making about the Divine Council Worldview. The fact is, we now know that ancient Jewish and early Christian interpreters believed the Scriptures emphatically taught things that sound absurd to most of us at face value. For example, while the Israelites were monotheists (i.e., believing in only one God), Jewish monotheism is something much different than what we think of today. For the Hebrews, God stood alone as the one true creator God—but there were/are other spiritual beings like him who actually rule creation alongside God in same way we do as humans made in God’s image.
Now I know some of you reading this just had a heart attack, but the evidence is sufficient and only becoming more clear and abundant that this is what biblical writers believed about spiritual reality. Therefore, we should too. As you might imagine, it was this discovery and learning more about its implications that drove me back to the Scriptures. Truthfully—I fell in love with the Bible again. It’s ironic. I fell in love with it precisely because I thought I had it all figured out, and it turned out I was dead wrong about many things I had previously believed.
Thus, ignoring the Scriptures because of a belief that we know all there is to know is perhaps the most pretentious thing one can do. If the Bible seems boring to you right now, it might be because you are approaching the Bible with the faulty assumption you’ve arrived as a Bible interpreter. I never thought about it that way; you likely don’t either. But deep down, that is the problem. You’ve become deaf to the Bible, and it’s becoming boring to you. Let me strongly encourage you to let down your guard, start really diving in again, and make it a daily practice to rediscover the Bible every day.
Why is the Bible boring? What gives us this category of thinking about the Bible? It is a self-fulfilling prophecy?
How We Created This Problem
The reality is there are enough problems with our commonly-held beliefs about the Bible and Bible study that it would probably take a whole book just to cover those. But here, we are trying to laser-focus on the problem that the Bible is boring—so, I think we can discern one major reason for this that would be appropriate for discussion here. And, it has to do with the very way that most recommend you study the Bible.
There are many ways that people approach the reading of the Bible. For one thing, many are taught that Bible reading equals Bible study. This is far from true, and is itself responsible for Christians who never fully move from crawling to running. If your idea of studying Scripture is reading it, you are already handicapped. To make matter worse, though, we often try to read the Bible in ways that are terribly unproductive.
The biggest culprit of all is the “Bible-in-a-year” reading plan. This leads to what I call the “resolution trap.” This is where Bible reading and Bible studying aspirations go to die. By teaching people they have to begin in Genesis and plow through the Bible, they become overwhelmed with things that seem boring, confusing, and extremely difficult to understand. It makes sense—I mean, we typically read books from beginning to end. But this fails to appreciate that the Bible is a compilation of books. And, even if one were to read through the Bible chronologically, there would still be context that was missing in particular sections that make it difficult to understand.
I realize that I am raising more questions than giving answers. A lot of times, you will find that happens in Bible study. The biblical writers just don’t have the same questions and categories as a 21st century reader, so there will be difficulties that arise. So, how best to proceed? Is there a right or a wrong way to read and/or study the Bible? I’m getting there. First, a bit more context.
Why Can’t We Grasp It?
In my opinion, it is really no mystery what makes the Bible difficult for us to understand. And if we’re honest, that’s the core of the problem, right? We become bored with things we truly don’t understand. If you do not understand chemistry, you will find it boring. People who understand chemistry very well are those who have become or are becoming chemists! If we’re excited about something, it is typically because we have put the time and effort in to understand that thing. When the Bible is not understandable, it is boring. But when we really grasp what it’s saying, it is exciting.
Why can’t we grasp it then? There are three primary reasons: time, translation, and tradition.
At the time of this writing, we are around 2,000 years from the time Christ walked the earth and taught his radical message. A lot has changed in 2,000 years. What’s more, many don’t stop and think that the Bible itself was written over a period of—you guessed it, about 2,000 years. Further still, the events described by the Bible cover about 4,000 years of earth history. We are talking a lot of time, here. Over time, things change. Ideas of the world change. Worldview’s change. Our knowledge increases as more tools are developed for understanding the world around us.
Over time, entire cultures—their cities, their artifacts, their beliefs, their language—are lost to us. Sometimes, they are rediscovered, and shed new light in previously uncharted territory. Sometimes, they merely confirm or deny beliefs we have about them from other sources. For example, until the early 1900’s, the only knowledge whatsoever of the ancient Hittite culture was that mentioned in the Bible. Archeological study confirmed that the Bible spoke accurately of their existence.
The reason we have such trouble grasping the idea that other spiritual beings the Bible calls “gods” actually existed in the world is because we have been taught through hundreds of years of church tradition that the word “God” has one particular meaning. It defines a spiritual being with a particular set of attributes like eternality, timelessness, omnipotence, etc. But neither the Hebrew or Greek languages have a word that means those things! The Hebrew elohim and Greek theos essentially mean “spiritual being.”
For the biblical writers, lots of these beings exist! However, only one exists like Yahweh. He is “species unique.”2 It’s not as though this data could not be ascertained over the last couple thousand years. But over time, such ideas become lost for one reason or another…until they are rediscovered.
A second reason that we don’t understand the biblical writers are because some ideas are necessarily lost in translation. This is another one of those things that, thinking about it for more than 5 seconds, it becomes obvious. But we never talk about it. So when we encounter the ideas in the wild, they immediately sound blasphemous. Here’s what I mean.
As Christians, I think we can agree together that we’d like to have a robust definition of the doctrine of the preservation of Scripture. In other words, we believe that God can preserve his Word for us in a way that is understandable in the various languages that his people speak. Of course, I believe this is true. But according to what means? After all, it’s just a fact—there is often not a one-to-one correlation between languages. There are many Bible versions which understand passages differently for the very simple reason that it is not always clear-cut.
There are ideas that lie behind the usage of certain words in one language that do not fit into the categories of another language. Here’s an example. In Genesis 4, we are told the story of Cain and Abel. In vs. 7, we learn that if Cain does not choose the correct response to the Lord, sin is crouching at the door. I have always thought this sounded weird.3 What does it mean for sin to “crouch” at the door?
Many commentators liken this to a crouching animal, ready and waiting to pounce on its prey. That is likely true, but potentially incomplete. The word “crouching” is the Hebrew word rovets. Kenneth Matthews describes the potential significance:
“Here we come to another interpretive obstacle in the verse, how to understand sin as “crouching” and what is meant by “door.” “Sin” is likened to an animal “crouching” or “lurking” (NRSV) at the “door,” meaning the animal’s resting place, ready to stir if incited. “Crouch” (rābaṣ) is commonly used of domesticated animals in repose (i.e., 29:2; 49:9; Exod 23:5), including wild animals such as the lion (Gen 49:9). This pictures sin temporarily at bay and subject to its master but coming alive when stirred. Some commentators have compared the Hebrew rōbēṣ (“crouch”) to the cognate Akkadian term rābiṣum, a mythological demon attending the doorways of buildings to guard its inhabitants or conversely to threaten them. The REB thus reads, “Sin is a demon crouching at the door.” If there is an allusion to the door demon, then the narrative is personifying sin as a demonic spirit ready to pounce on Cain once he opens the “door” of opportunity. This may well correspond with the “seed” of the serpent in 3:15, which will do battle with the “seed” of the woman Eve. The imagery is effectively the same and the message clear: sin can be stirred up by wrong choices.”
The simple fact is, apart from an understanding of the relationship between the Hebrew and Akkadian terms, we would never be let into this potential background information. And it makes the passage much more theologically significant! It’s not a fault of any Bible translator; it’s just the facts: English words do not have the ability to communicate the same worldview ideas as some Hebrew words. We don’t need to despise that, or blame God for inability to communicate. No—the proper response is thankfulness to God that we now have the sort of resources at our disposal that allow us to discover these connections!
It is our fault if we do not take advantage of these tools and the folks who have given their entire lives to the study of such ideas. They have made our lives so much simpler! Once we begin to look beyond what an English translation can communicate, the Bible will become much more understandable—and, by extension, much less boring.
The final problem is arguably the touchiest one. I do not claim to be an expert in church tradition. I do know that I have a particular context in which much tradition is handed down, and my time interacting with others has taught me that many others have traditions of their own that have been handed down as well.
As a general principle, let me just say that I do not think tradition is bad, per se. The concept of tradition is a helpful one, and it is often made use of in the Bible. The problem comes in when tradition takes the place of theology. The primary biblical example of this theme is the role the Pharisees play in the New Testament. In fact, even though to be a Pharisee actually meant belonging to a certain school of Jewish theological thought, it has become a derogatory way of referring to people even today who make too much of the law and too little of grace.
For the Pharisees, the teaching of Jesus was too radical. It left the law that had been handed down through centuries of tradition. The Hebrew Bible and other documents which spelled out the roughly 611 laws the Pharisaical tradition held to were a way of life. It was instructions for how to do life in virtually every circumstance. Then Jesus comes along and demands even more—this time, he makes heart demands, though. And the Pharisees are having none of it. They missed the revelation from God in the Person of Jesus, right in front of their eyes, because man-made tradition had blinded them to it.4
Man-made tradition often has us making the same mistake. Sometimes I upset people (or at least make them uneasy) because I am unwilling to categorize myself in a box. Terms like Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology, the Reformation, and even certain forms of eschatology make me nervous. Why? Because they introduce the concept of a framework for understanding Scripture that lies beyond the context of the biblical writers. For the record, I’m fine with creeds, catechisms, call-outs, etc., but these things fall into the same category because they bring the same dangers. Namely, if we run into something in the Bible that does not seem to fit nicely within our current framework, we’ll either ignore it or reinterpret it to fit. If you’re not comfortable with me making the statement about you, then consider me making it about myself. Because I am guilty of doing it..
Beyond Our Limits
Here’s the heart of the matter, then: Most of us don’t love the Bible because we fail to understand it. We have a hard time making it relevant to our lives and understanding what is going on. For most, the reasons we cannot understand what biblical writers are getting at in many situations are time, translation, and tradition.
What we need to do, then, is find a way to move beyond our limits of understanding. We need to penetrate time, translation, and tradition such that we better understand the biblical text. Once we begin to understand it, we’ve got a much better chance of being less bored with it—and then, falling in love with it.
Before moving any further, I feel it’s important to strongly address an issue when it comes to planning your Bible reading and study time. If you are going to understand and become excited about the Bible—especially if you are going to dig deep to overcome the barriers of time, translation, and tradition, it is going to take a lot of work. This is not something you are only going to be able to give time to on the weekend, or only going to do “when you have a free moment.” This is so much more important than that. You have to be intentional about it.
By the way, I am not talking about 3-hour study sessions, here. Other than planning for sermons/talks, I don’t know too many people who do that. Why not start with five minutes a day? Why not join an email list like mine where I regularly provide resources for engaging with biblical theology every day? Why not find two or three podcasts to listen to that teach good theology? These things are not substitutes for Bible study and reading, but they do two primary things. First, they engage with you with the world of the Bible. They get you thinking about it. They teach you something. Second, they promote study. You will hear something that intrigues or confuses you, and that will motivate you to get out the Bible and see for yourself what it says.
In my podcasts, blogs, emails, etc., my only point ever is to get people thinking so they will go back to the Scriptures. My podcast is called the Bible Nerd Podcast because I want to create Bible Nerds! The goal is not to fall in love with my podcast or even with theological education; no, it’s to fall in love with the Bible.
Part of becoming a mature Christian and “running” with the Lord is devoting genuine time to the study of God’s Word. There are some “hacks” for this, sure, such as listening to the Bible on audio and increasing the speed. By the way, I do this! Nothing wrong with that at all. However you have to fit it in, I’m asking to realize that if you truly want to fall in love with the Bible—you will need to stop treating it as something you touch only when there’s nothing else to do. It deserves your time, attention, and intention. If you’re ready to give it that, keep reading next week. It’s time to discuss a framework for overcoming Bible boredom.
- Visit steveschramm.com/dcw for more. ↩︎
- A term Heiser coined to help clarify what biblical writers thought about Yahweh. ↩︎
- In the a few weeks we are going to explore “strange” things in the Bible. This is a small sampling of such things. ↩︎
- It feel it’s important to mention here the Hebrew Bible gives us a relatively small picture of what the law demanded of ancient Israelites. The traditions and laws of ancient Judaism go well beyond what is taught there, and much of it was never ordained by God. ↩︎